The young Uighurs were full of empathy and faint excitement: China Newsweek reporting from Urumqi

China Newsweek was founded in 2000 by China News Service, the second-largest news organization and the only wire service apart from Xinhua.

Wang Gang (??) and Wang Jing (??) are two Chinese journalists who got to Xinjiang the Monday after the riots happened on Sunday July 5 to report for China Newsweek.

Wang Gang is a veteran in sudden events reporting, and a senior journalist at the weekly magazine, Wang Jing is a new journalist who has a "real talent for news" (said China Newsweek deputy-editor Wu Chenguang ???) and who used to intern at Southern Weekly.

Danwei asked the journalists about the ethnic conflict, their own take on media freedoms during reporting, reactions to Western reports and biases, and as their stay in Xinjiang.

A translation of their answers is below.

China Newsweek's Wang Gang

Danwei: How did you feel when you stepped into Urumqi to report the recent conflict?
Wang Gang: I arrived on the afternoon on July 6, to Urumqi, at the time it was around 4 in the afternoon, and there were no traces of violence at the Urumqi Diwopu airport, the number of security guards at the airport were not increased, and everything looked normal. Only the two exits had been reduced to one, with the people who were there to collect guests not allowed into main hall of the airport. The tourists coming out and in of the airport seemed a lot less than usual.

From the airport to city center there were so few cars that it was pitiful, not to talk about pedestrians. It felt as if the people of this city had gone on holiday, collectively. The visage of the city was depressed, and all the shops and stalls has stopped their business.

The local government had already told the entire city and all the work places that it would go on a three-day holiday. Most of the people were obviously hiding at home, but many did not think this a good thing. Having something to do was obviously better than being idle and living in fear, and is better for the people.

After arriving in the city center, we drove to the main places where violence and bloodshed occurred. The Grand Bazaar, the Erdaoqiao district, but we didn’t find car wreckage: there were only signs of burning from the shops next to the streets.

Then unsurprisingly we saw big rows of military police. To be truthful, this actually made people feel safe. But in the first day there were not as many military police.

The hotel we were in was close to the Erdaoqiao district, and this was an important spot for the violent events. That evening, military police controlled the traffic, and there were so few cars it was pitiful: at every crossroad the military police had placed a roadblock.

Like other cities in China, the city center had a big square that would normally belong to the citizens - People’s Square. This day, this square was occupied by the police, and it had become a temporary police headquarters - the citizens were forbidden to enter.

In the evening we moved to a hotel nearby. Looking down from above, the square was chock-full of military police.

Danwei: Have you been to Xinjiang before? Was there a contrast in ethnic relations between when you were there last and when you went this time?
WG: I lived in Xinjiang for a time as a youngster. At that time my father was a soldier in the north of Xinjiang, in the Shihezi area, where the small town had nothing but the military and the Great Gobi, but now I hear that it has become biggest “garden” city in Xinjiang. Impressions from that time are not very many, but I feel that at the time Uighurs were amiable, the relationship between Uighurs and Han are not as tense as they are now.

But now, in Urumqi, incompatibility between the Han and the Uyghur can be perceived everywhere. On the street, as a Han, it was easy for me to harvest unfriendly looks from the Uighurs. This kind of unfriendliness can be likened to the attitude that Uyghurs get in a big city like Beijing or Shanghai. In Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, people with even a little bit of experience will want to keep a little distance when seeing Uighurs. Because a lot of the time, these people are associated with thieves.

This kind of attitude has existed in mainland cities for around ten years. Therefore in Xinjiang, where Uighurs gather together, a Han person appears like a monkey: this is normal. What I want to say is, for rational people, if we are talking about Uighurs discriminating against the Han, then it must have started with the Han isolating the Uighurs.

Danwei: How do you think Chinese readers read your reports from Xinjiang?
WG: In the eyes of the Chinese public, who in the majority do not know much about the Xinjiang situation, the events of July 5 shocked them, and they cannot understand why it happened. In the hearts of the people the concept of “56 ethnic minorities” is deeply rooted.

But to tell the truth, many people know that the 7-5 events were not accidentally caused by a small minority of people. In every person’s heart there's the question: if it was a misunderstanding and caused by incitation between a small group of people, why didn't the events stop and become traceless? Why in the end did it become such a tragedy? The answer is in everyone’s heart. But regrettably, many readers who I have come across think that China’s ethnic policies are too weak, and have comprised too much to the Uiyghurs. This kind of antithesis has frustrated me for a while.

Danwei: What is China Newsweek's process for reporting on a sudden, mass event such as this one?
WG: China Newsweek has a mature process in dealing with sudden events. At the first instant that we detect something, journalists will be sent to the front-line, to organize interviews and to report. This time, we predicted that the 7-5 incident will become this year's figure news, so the editorial department decided to send two reporters to the front. When we arrived it was already Monday. The paper's weekly deadline is Tuesday. So we only had a day to do our first set of cover reports. Thus we could only record what we initially saw and heard.

In our first set of cover reports, we witnessed the events of July 7 and the entire process of the Han bunching together and marching on the streets, and we expressed this with full objectivity in the articles. This is the first weekly in China that has reported on the entire route where the Han people marched and protested. Because the 7-5 events had already caused a deepening of hatred and misunderstandings between Han and Uighurs locally.

After finishing the first cover, the editorial department decided to send more journalists there, and for the second magazine we did a cover story which had enough depth and was more comprehensive. We had three more journalists.

For the second set we put the pressure on observing in-depth the relationship between the Han and the Uighurs. We tried to do this through depicting a region where Uighurs and Han lived together, and through people who were of mixed Uyghur and Han origin, and through some sensitive Universities. From these places we wanted to seek the more detailed aspects of the Han-Uyghur relationship.

We came to understand that the perpetrators of the violent incident were a group of disappointed Uighur youth and because we put the emphasis of the observation on them, we'd hoped to get to know their sense of loss deep and where it came from, what the root cause.

It’s good that we found an answer in the end. The 7-5 events were an extreme collective eruption caused by a set of social contradictions. The perpetrators of the violence had their different needs: for some it's because they are unemployed; for others it’s because they can’t get out, and has to endure the feeling of being squeezed out in the mainland; for some it’s because of poverty. But to conclude, the bursting point of the social problems ended up in a place where the relationship between Uighurs and Han were the most weak and at its most sensitive.

I felt hopeless about the world after conducting some key interviews with local Uighur youths, giving us the viewpoints of a group of elite Uighur youths. For the bloody events of 7-5, the young people that I interviewed were full of empathy and faint excitement. From what they could see, only through this extremely violent and bloody event, could the whole world notice and care about the living conditions of Uighurs and the social problems that they face.

To be honest, their sincerity shocked me. A few nights after this I was sleepless. Most of these Uighur youths has had a good education, so their knowledge of social problems were stronger: unemployment, the difference between the rich and the poor etc. Thus their sense of loss from the outside was stronger. Their radicalism was shocking to any outside observer. After my interviews, I had to admit that they were the source of violence for the entire 7-5 incident.

But in the southern part of Xinjiang (??), where there were young people who had not been educated as well, they were more moderate in comparison. Their requirements for life were not as sophisticated, and they only knew a little bit about social problems, and their feelings of loss were not as strong; during the 7-5 incident they were only the accomplices under duress.

In Urumqi anyone knows that this incident has a long-lasting influence. It will be a protracted scar on this region. People don’t want to make it simply about the Han-Uighur relationship, because then that would become an abyss between the two ethnic groups in the city.

Therefore, the people of the city are conflicted but also careful. They have not forgotten the pain from the violence, but they are afraid to directly address the deeper issues.

Danwei: In terms of the Western media, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of letting them go freely about and reporting?
WG: In truth, I don’t think the foreign media’s level of freedom during the reporting in Xinjiang was any bigger or freer. Due to reasons out of their control, foreign media in China are likely to interview people from the lower levels. We can also do this, but we can get appointments with some core characters, such as cadres, officials and soldiers involved in the events, but they don’t have this convenience.

Therefore Western media will focus more on the words of the Uighurs at the lower levels. To be honest what is said there is fragmentary and not completely objective and comprehensive.

The reason is that in terms of the relationship between Han and Uighurs, 100 people will have 100 different versions, and this would be hard for a journalist, if they want to get very clear signs. I think the foreign reports this time were a little trivial, and not entirely whole.

Danwei: Is there a chance that you think the Western media has been reporting with a certain bias this time in Xinjiang, similar to Tibet last year?
WG: There has not been any so-called bias. When this sort of violent, bloody incident happens, every journalist comes from the point of view of humane empathy and understanding for the issues. The only limitations are the angles and the views, what each journalist sees are the different sides to the incident.

I think that turning any incident like this to simple news reporting is foolish: the reporting should show the complicated and full nature behind the events, not just simply about denouncing “a small group of people” or about “the oppression of a race.” That would not be the bias of a journalist: it would be foolish.

The year when African-Americans went on strike in Memphis, it resulted in the tragic death of Martin Luther King. That also was not caused by “a small fraction” or “ethnic policies.”

Danwei: It has been over a month since the Xinjiang incidents. Has your view changed in any way? If it has, in what direction?
WG: My views have never changed. Number one, it was not perpetrated by a small group of violence-enacters. Number two, the 7-5 events involved a whole set of social incongruities that erupted together, within that there the strong ethnic clashes, but that is not all.

Number three, the issues with Xinjiang have been coming for a long time, and it's not something that happened during one or two days. When, in the fifties and sixties, there was a period of ethnic cohesion in Xinjiang, that was a caused by a particular historical circumstance. But now, in this society, the same logic doesn’t work anymore. Therefore, China’s ethnic policy has now really reached the time for a change in direction.

Four, the mainland’s rejection of Xinjiang, the misunderstanding on the part of the Han towards the Uighurs, was there before Xinjiang’s rejection of the mainland, and was there before the Uighurs felt antagonistic towards the Han. So it was this society that first made Uighurs feel an palpable sense of loss. This is the inescapable reality.

Danwei: Blogs have said that Chinese and Western observers on these events (events of ethnic conflict) produce irreconcilable viewpoints, as will newspaper reports. Do you read Western media, if so, which ones do you like?
When I look at the news I only see the reality, I don’t often look at viewpoints. After doing news for long, I am normally a little averse to reports that are influenced by sentiment or emotion. I often read articles from the foreign media: on international issues they often have a very unique viewpoint. For example I read The New Yorker, Time, The Economist etc - I’m afraid if I keep going this entire page would be filled.

I will admit that on certain issues, Chinese news readers and foreign news readers will have irreconcilable viewpoints. Just as my viewpoints are often incompatible with my interviewees.

Danwei: Do you think the media will get freer this year after the October anniversary, or next year?
WG: Concerning this, I have never been optimistic. Therefore I can’t really make any predictions.

Danwei: Has this retracting news freedom affected your reporting over the years?
To be honest, it’s been so many years. Faced with limited media openness, a working journalist gets used to it. When I say get used to it I don’t mean I’ve adapted to it: there is just nothing I can do for something that I cannot change.

A limited media environment has a definite impact on our reporting. Often my reports will be changed completely by the head of propaganda until my words don’t convey my meanings - I want to speak, but then I have to stop. But each time, I will try hard and objectively write out what I want to say. Happily, sometimes the head of propaganda will be a little negligent and unwittingly publish some sensitive truths.

However, the inches of media freedom are getting bigger and bigger in this society. This is a truth that no-one can cover up.

China Newsweek's Wang Jing

Danwei: How did you feel when you stepped into Urumqi to report the recent conflict?
Wang Jing: We arrived in Urumqi around 6pm on July 6. Sitting in the car from the airport to the city center, I felt only calm. The shops on either side of the road had all closed: you could hardly see any people. On the wide roads, there were only a few cars. The driver said, usually at this time, the road would be congested with cars. This was 6pm, and the sun had not yet set. It was hard for me to imagine what the “riots” were like a day ago in this city, which was quiet to the extent of being queer. The only thing that gave me the impression of the riots the day before was the presence of military police on the streets. They were even practicing on the street.

After conducting interviews in the hospital we returned to the news building, at already half past eight in the evening. We were in a hurry to get online and read the news: we suddenly realized that the city, after the riots, had become isolated – there was no Internet in Xinjiang.

Immediately after, at around 9pm, the whole city was again declared to be under martial law. There was no way for us to use transport, and it was difficult to go far, so we could only stay close to the news headquarters. There weren't many places to eat because the restaurants around the news headquarters had already closed.

As journalists, although we had arrived in the key area, our understanding of the riots was practically zero.

In the end we stepped outside anyway. We asked a security guard to come along to a small convenience store that had been smashed. The security guard said, “It really isn’t safe, because you never know when a group of thugs with bats will come out of a nook. We were 50 meters away from the military police, but were told to: “Stop! Don’t move!”

Despite this, we were still stubborn and decided that this city was quiet, and peaceful.

Danwei: Have you been to Xinjiang before? Was there a contrast in ethnic relations between when you were there last and when you went this time?
WJ: This was my first time in Xinjiang. Truthfully speaking, I felt that Urumqi was a very good city, in the process of conducting interviews I felt that whether Han or Uighur, people were all very friendly: they liked guests and were very hospitable.

Danwei: How do you think Chinese readers read your reports from Xinjiang?
WJ: I think that it was good. I heard that the magazine sold very well, but regrettably we couldn’t get our hands on a copy of the magazine in Xinjiang.

Danwei: What is the China Newsweek's process for reporting on a sudden, mass event such as this one?
WJ: To get to the scene on time - this is never wrong. We have a certain level of data support from the rear, but because Internet was suspended in Xinjiang, and it was an isolated island, contacting the rear was not as efficient as it used to be with sudden events, in terms of a tight cooperation between the front and the rear.

Danwei: In terms of the Western media, what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of letting them go freely about and reporting?
WJ: Really I think we were also quite free compared to the foreign media. My feeling is, if you are interviewing about the “Three Forces (????):” extreme religious conflict, ethnic disputes and violent, terrorist incidents, then the Western media stand at more of an advantage compared to us. The disadvantage is, most Xinjiang people, after the experience of 3-14, will regard the foreign media in a certain way, so lots of ordinary people don't want to accept foreign media interviews.

Danwei: Is there a chance that you think the Western media has been reporting with a certain bias this time in Xinjiang, similar to Tibet last year?
WJ: I think it was slightly better.

Danwei: It has been over a month since the Xinjiang incidents. Has your view changed in any way? If it has, in what direction?
WJ: Its shadow might still affect the Xinjiang people in the long run.

Danwei: Any other comments?
WJ: As a new journalist, my first out-of-town assignment was the 7-5 incident. In Xinjiang, another journalist told me that I was very lucky, some journalists might not have this opportunity their whole lives. So I treasure this opportunity.